August 23, 2006

The Song of Our Experience

“Bless the Lord, O my soul:
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name” (Ps. 103:1).
2006 1524 page31 capver since I was a child, I’ve been intrigued by the superscriptions in our Bibles above the poetry of the psalms. Some tell the tune to which this hymn was supposed to be sung; others tell the strange historical events that occasioned the writing of the psalm. Still others, such as Psalm 103, simply identify the author.
But if I were to write a personal superscription for Psalm 103, it would begin like this: “To be read in the park on Sabbath afternoon just as the sun is going down.” For that’s the setting where I came to love this psalm and take its cadences deep into my heart.
I have an unshakable set of memories from the years when I was 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 of gathering with my family on late spring Sabbath afternoons in Forest Park on the south side of Fort Worth, Texas, to hear my father read from the psalms. And because my brothers and I loved the park so much, we came to also love the psalms that Dad would read as we sat near the trunk of an old pin oak tree and watched the fiery Texas sun slip behind the western horizon.
2006 1524 page31By 7:00 on Sabbath afternoon, we had chased every rabbit that could be chased. We had played “hop the goldfish pond” and “climb the tree” and every other kind of joyous sport that children will invent when they are happy with the world. And I am sure that I will never be able to fully convey the sense of deep, profound security that washed over me on Sabbath as we sat there on the flannel blanket and listened to Dad begin, “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:1, 2).
Some years ago, my travels took me to Fort Worth again. I told the uncle who picked me up at the airport that one place I really had to visit was Forest Park—to see if the fountains still ran, to see if there were still rabbits needing to be chased. But in truth, I had to go back to that spot under the old pin oak tree. I needed to reconnect with that wonderful sense of wholeness that used to wrap me on Sabbath when Dad would read Psalm 103 to us. Bless the Lord. I still bless the Lord for those memories.
Though I cherish many favorite portions of Scripture, there’s no passage that more explains who I am than the words of this psalm. I’ve said these words on mountaintops in New Hampshire and Colorado and Switzerland as I looked across the stunning vista of the land. I’ve said these words when my heart was so full of the goodness and grandeur of God that I thought I might burst for joy.
And I’ve said these words, I’ve prayed these words, in moments of deep sadness, when joy was gone, when friends were absent, when I had lost someone entirely precious to me. I’ve said these words waiting in train stations in the middle of the night, and lying on emergency room gurneys awaiting medical tests. These words have been my sustenance and my song ever since those golden afternoons in Forest Park.
Three hundred fifty years ago, the brave men who reformed the English Church and penned the lines of the Westminster Confession said something that to me sounds very much like Psalm 103. They wrote that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.” Perhaps never in the history of English prose outside of the translation of the Bible has there been a happier thought than this one: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.”
When we sum up all our threescore years and ten; when we account for all the generations since Adam; when we try to find a phrase that encompasses the reasons why we work and play and laugh and weep and shout and sigh and run and sleep, we end with the idea that everything we are will somehow bless and glorify our God in the end.
This is the song of our experience, O Lord.
If its melody is weak, its lyric poor—
Remember, Lord, we are not yet
     the singers we will someday be:
Our praise will be perfected in eternity.
Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.